Every few years the debate about the validity of Irish übergroup U2 swells to a fever pitch, just around the time that the first snippets of new music seep out from U2 HQ. You may recall the reaction when “Beautiful Day” hit the airwaves prior to the release of the “back to form” All That You Can’t Leave Behind. “Wow, they’ve dropped the McPhisto crap and made a record that sounds like U2!” enthused The Joshua Types (they’re the ones who thought all that stuff about Discotheques, Lemons, and whatnot was a mite silly). Then you had the other camp, whom we’ll dub The Achtungoids, who tend to regard U2’s irony-embracing forays into 21st-century rock as brave, listenable, and, in fact, preferable to the chest-thumping that was rearing its unshaven head ‘round about the time of Rattle & Hum’s release. They, as a rule, weren’t too chuffed about the “return to the roots” that ATYCLB signified. But even they had to concede that “Elevation” was kinda cool.
It’s telling that upon the release of the pounding sonic boom that is U2’s new single “Vertigo,” the thing that really got people’s knickers in a knot was the band’s decision to appear in an iPod commercial. When it came to the actual song, the camps seemed strangely silent, as if they couldn’t quite figure out which side of the fence to unfurl their white flags. This can only be a good thing. See, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (what is it with the multi-word titles these days, guys? Remember Boy? War?) is already being pegged by some as another dose of U2-by-numbers, where Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton, in close consultation with the U2 songbook, pull out the best bits of their 24-year career and, with a well-assembled team of sonic scientists at their beck and call (among them, former co-producers like Steve Lillywhite, Brain Eno, Flood, and Daniel Lanois), make an album that’s all things to all people. But such a dismissal of these 11 tracks really misses the mark. What this new album is, in fact, is the most sonically direct and, yes, moving material the band has popped out since Achtung Baby.
True, kicking the whole thing off with the exuberant, giddy rush of “Vertigo” might’ve been a bit of a miscalculation, seeing that it’s followed up by two stunning tracks (“Miracle Drug” and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own”) that don’t explode from the speakers so much as float out (the latter, with its gorgeous falsetto chorus, is a particularly notable heartstring-tugger). By the fourth track, “Love & Peace or Else,” the band cranks it up again, doling out a mutant mix of T. Rex and Led Zeppelin that could go down in the books as the first genuinely sleazy (and by that I mean “sexy”) U2 song. Indeed, the early word on the album from the band calling it a “real rock ‘n’ roll” record isn’t too far off the mark, with The Edge fiddling with riffs that The Darkness might pull out for a spin, the Clayton/Mullen Jr. rhythm section pounding away ferociously, and Bono dialing up some serious grit in his vocal on tracks like “All Because of You.”
Yes, there are moments of U2-lite that recall the more pop-friendly material of Atomic Bomb’s predecessor (“City of Blinding Lights” could be an ATYCLB outtake, what with its rather linear trajectory spiked by a trademark big chorus). But, for the most part, this is U2’s take on the rock ‘n’ roll that has coursed through the band’s collective veins since its inception. Besides the welcome embrace of the Big Dumb Riff, the frequent appearance of acoustic guitar strumming on tracks like “Original of the Species” provides a “Moonlight Mile”-era Stones vibe. And, as mentioned, the rhythm section is truly unstoppable.
Lyrically, Bono still isn’t shying away from throwing the odd bit of religious imagery into the mix (and really, would we want it any other way?) but while there are nods to the state of the world, the ills of mankind, and other traditional Bono themes, the singer seems to have followed the band’s lead: if the music is going to be direct and visceral, so too should be the words. Thus, we get the truly touching tributes to his late father (“Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own”), brooding meditations on doubt (“One Step Closer”), and ruminations on love and lust (“A Man and a Woman”), all of which cut straight to the matter with a minimum of proselytizing and posturing.
The album’s final track, “Yahweh,” sums up all that is still great about U2, and perhaps offers the single most striking argument for their relevance in 2004. Yes, The Edge is still using that skittery guitar delay that he’s always used. Yes, Bono is invoking the name of a deity. But even in the midst of such conventional U2 trappings as those, the song’s—and the album’s—final line, when taken on its own in the context of a world spinning out of control faster than any of us can realize, resonates far deeper than perhaps any other lyric sung this year. The sentiment, or plea, is simple: “Take this heart/And make it break.” In a time where cultural voices of clarity are seldom heard or are just plain ignored, Atomic Bomb finds U2 in the unique position of being one of the only rock acts capable of making the universal seem achingly personal. With Atomic Bomb, U2 continue to “bring it all back home,” and we’re more than willing to let them in, perhaps now more than ever.